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Chess, Poker, And Kickboxing In Moldovan Politics

  • Louis O'Neill

Communist leader Vladimir Voronin (right) speaks to former Prime Minister Zinaida Grecianii before a presidential vote in Chisinau on December 7.

Communist leader Vladimir Voronin (right) speaks to former Prime Minister Zinaida Grecianii before a presidential vote in Chisinau on December 7.

After hearing that his obituary has been published in "The New York Journal," Mark Twain famously quipped, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

The same could be said of the death knell sounded for Moldova's Communist Party (PCRM) by some excited analysts after its decision to boycott last week's vote in parliament for a new president. Although the theory of a disoriented PCRM dissolving internally and melting away has a superficial appeal and some supporting evidence, there is a far more complex game playing out in Chisinau, combining elements of three-dimensional chess, no-limits poker, and bare-knuckled kickboxing.

For sure, Communist leader and former President Vladimir Voronin has had to make a difficult adjustment: He now must play "black" pieces instead of "white," reacting to political events rather than driving them. And it is likely that his general animosity toward the Alliance for European Integration (AIE) and particular dislike of defector Marian Lupu are at the forefront of his thinking.

But at the end of the day the Communists' entirely rational goal is to hang onto power by remaining indispensable to the Moldovan political process. If an analysis of the PCRM's behavior is divorced from projections of emotionality or wishful thinking, it can be evaluated as a hard-headed but highly risky strategy.

Closing Ranks

Voronin and his team are betting the future of their party by -- to use the poker expression -- "going all in" with the expectation that they can outlast the AIE, fracture it into internal competition, retain a blocking minority in parliament, and find a willing coalition partner. Either the PCRM will succeed in dividing and conquering its rivals and will continue as the decisive, anchoring element of a governing coalition, or it will face the voters' wrath and be severely punished for standing in the way of Moldova's European future.

The Communists selected this strategy because they understand two things. First, that time is running out on their party and that their current "brand" is now a wasting asset. Demographic reality dictates that in a fair fight the sum of seats going to the PCRM will continue to decline, as it has from 71 in 2001 to 56 in 2005 to 48 in 2009. They are counting, however, on still having enough momentum to garner at least 41 seats in new elections, making it impossible for any ruling coalition to form without them.

Second, Voronin and his top advisers know Moldova's political history well, having shaped much of it themselves in one way or another since independence. They are mindful of the difficulty in Moldova of holding together a broad multiparty coalition; most alliances have fallen apart under the weight and ambitions of their constituent parts. That the four-party AIE has maintained a united front this long marks an exception in Moldova's political culture.

There is already evidence of public fissures on both sides, but whether these cracks will lead to a collapse remains to be seen. For example, April's infamous flag-man Vladimir Turcan -- who is a member of the Communists' parliamentary faction but not the party itself -- has announced that he and others will leave the PCRM's orbit to protest the party's boycott of the Lupu vote. Without giving a figure, Turcan claimed recently that a number of Communists deputies had also been ready to support Lupu, but lacked the courage (as did Turcan himself) to remain in parliament when Voronin herded his party out the door during the vote.

That Voronin was still able to exert this kind of discipline over his faction is revealing. If the PCRM's grouping in parliament really felt that the boycott strategy reflected an irrational vendetta against the AIE that would destroy their country, their party, and their livelihood, surely eight faction members would have found the stomach to oppose it publicly. And even the theory that Voronin holds "kompromat" files on many PCRM members and associates, controversially advanced last month by Valeriu Pasat, is insufficient to explain the full-team walkout. After all, the Communists' ability to bring politically motivated cases has been diminished with the AIE in charge. It simply means that the PCRM was offering its people something more attractive than standing up and being counted with the AIE.

Escalation

On the other side of the aisle, an AIE constituent party -- the Our Moldova Alliance (AMN) -- appears to be in free fall. When Veaceslav Untila challenged eternal AMN head Serafim Urechean for the top spot at a recent party congress, the AMN was also shaken by a protest and walkout, as the youth wing left the meeting (and possibly the party) over alleged procedural violations. Urechean was overwhelmingly reelected by those deputies remaining, but Untila promised to contest the outcome -- and the way the AMN is run -- with the Justice Ministry. These are exactly the kinds of tensions that the PRCM is seeking to exacerbate and exploit by dragging out Moldova's political drama.

And the rhetoric on both sides has turned even uglier, taking on a fight-to-the-death quality. Prime Minister Vlad Filat lamented that the AIE "hadn't done everything possible" to get Lupu elected, "being excessively permissive" with the Communists. In clarifying what he meant, Filat again invoked the raw power of political prosecutions for winning the day: "We need to be more incisive and let the law enforcement organs do their work." Thus, the country's prime minister suggested that negotiations over electing Lupu failed because the AIE provided "insufficient motivation" for the Communists, including not having criminal cases ready over the "illegalities committed by the previous [Communist] government."

Certainly attempting or threatening to jail one's opponents can be an effective way of gaining power, but the alliance ran on a platform of change, not a continuation of the bludgeoning kompromat policies of the PCRM. Filat concluded that if "we, the AIE, have occasion to dismember the PCRM, we must do it," a sentiment echoed by Urechean, who is also the parliament's deputy speaker: "We will do everything possible to destroy this party." So much for negotiations.

Voronin answered in kind. Speaking recently on NIT's program "Resonance," the Communist leader taunted the AIE, calling acting President Mihai Ghimpu the best "agitator" for the PRCM because "the more he speaks the more our rating grows." Voronin derided the "Aliansul za Evro" ("Alliance for the Euro" uttered in pure "Moldovan," a grammatical mix of Russian and Romanian) and then turned forebodingly serious, saying it had brought "criminals" into parliament and would betray Moldovan "interests...and attack the nation's sovereignty and identity," hinting that the AIE's dramatic improvement of relations with Romania could result in the end of Moldova as an independent country.

The 'Nuclear Option'

Lupu, meanwhile, successfully resisted the temptation to take a last-minute deal offered by the Communists to form a new governing majority (together the Communists and Lupu's Democrats would have had enough votes to make him president). Part of the Communist strategy, then, will be to shuffle the cards through repeat elections and see which parliamentary hand gets dealt. Next time, someone else (don't forget Iurie Rosca's unexpected arrangement with the PCRM in 2005 which led to Voronin's reelection as president) may well hold a joker and be ready to form a coalition with the Communists in return for a fancy position and other benefits.

This explains in part why the PRCM is pushing for an immediate dissolution of parliament following the second failure to elect a president. It is advancing, among other arguments, the notion that parliament can only be dissolved once in a calendar year, meaning it could happen as early as January 2010 (the Communists don't accept what they consider the AIE's self-serving interpretations of the constitution on this issue and want the Constitutional Court to weigh in). The AIE, on the other hand, is enjoying the levers of influence and use of administrative resources, and thus wants to drag the status quo out for as long as possible to cement its hold on power. Therefore, the alliance says that the constitution means that parliament can only be dissolved again one full year after the dissolution of the last parliament. This would be in June 2010, leading to elections next fall.

Which brings us around again to the AIE's oft-threatened nuclear option -- amending the constitution to get out of the political crisis. Ghimpu stated categorically on the talk show "In Profunzime" last week that "no early parliamentary elections will take place," because he will insist on the adoption of a new constitution to avoid them. By skipping out on the Lupu vote, the Communists have dramatically increased the odds that the AIE will indeed press the "red button" and launch this process. But that move will lead to an even greater escalation in the level of vitriol and legal wrangling, with unforeseeable consequences.

At this point, there may, unfortunately, be no other way out. Ghimpu has been talking for weeks about the ‘aces up his sleeve.' Slapping them on the table is cheating in poker, but in Moldova's hybrid politics, anything goes.

Louis O'Neill was OSCE ambassador and head of mission to Moldova from 2006-08. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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